Volta: the magic of the circus thrives 21 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photographs by Lyon Smith and Hannah Price
The big top beckons and the excitement builds. A circus is irresistible and Cirque du Soleil's reinvention - more of a reboot in current slang - of the circus continues apace. I have lost count of how many circuses and how many Cirque du Soleil productions I have seen, but I always leave dazzled, drained and thoroughly entertained. With Volta, Cirque du Soleil continues their quest to push the frontiers of the human body, technology and art. And, as always, where it succeeds best is where the old school circus artforms soar to the forefront.
Volta adds BMX stunts and parkour to their repertoire - and do them both bigger and better than has ever been seen - but the new twist in this production is a linear narrative. Set in a sci-fi/contemporary world of ubiquitous cell phones and the resulting lack of human connection, Volta is framed by a game show that is a tamer version of The Hunger Games crossed with the celebrity worship of a reality television debacle. The show is called Quid Pro Quo and, not surprisingly, it is the weakest portion of Volta. The satire is blatant, obvious and a little muddled.
The plot, and Volta contains more plot than any dozen Cirque shows, may be powerful but I'll never know: we were among the third to a half of the audience whose sightlines excluded the backstage vignettes, video projections and the lead character's big entrance. Inexplicably. the plot is presented as in a proscenium stage format, totally ignoring those who aren't seated front and centre. The reasoning, or excuse, becomes clear for the grand finale when the back of the stage opens to accommodate the huge ramps necessary for the BMX tour de force.
With the plot mostly a mystery, Volta is fortunate to have a casual powerhouse in Joey Arrigo (ignoring the irony of a So You Think You Can Dance celebrity starring in a satire of celebrity), who takes a vague tale of ditching fame for self-expression and explicates it in a solo dance number. It doesn't explain the blue hair metaphor or the gold helmet or his reasons, but his body does the talking and the audience feels his emotional liberation and joy. And it is glorious.
Arrigo's awakening is aided and abetted by a gang of street kids and a mysterious sprite on roller skates. They perform many of the acts and create wonders with basketballs, hoop diving, bungee cords, and their sheer physicality. While the game show contestants are clad in glittering ruffles and masks, the street kids wear colourful sports gear of the body-revealing sort. The game show contestants and winners also perform in rigid formation, playing only to those in front which was initially frustrating (who wants to see double-dutch rope skipping from only the back?) but makes thematic sense as they are trapped in the camera's gaze and aware of the strict social strata of seat placement. It is exhilarating when the street kids race at all angles of the stage, all corners of the tent, and gleefully celebrate their improbable abs and vitality.
The street kids work the crowd, much like old-school circus acts, cajoling and seducing and teasing to get and keep our attention and emotional connection. No amount of technology or application of sequins can outdo the sheer hunger for applause and to entertain. Amidst all the explosive tumbling and frenetic dancing, there is a brief pause for an old-fashioned tightrope act. For the first time that magical hush settles over the crowd as everyone's eyes are glued to the simple spectacle of a man defying gravity and his own limitations. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
Also of note is a duet between a ballet dancer and a BMX Flatland rider. It encapsulates the themes with grace, and is breathtaking in its deceptive simplicity. The second act, with less plot and more action it is infinitely better, jumping right in with Acrobatic Ladders that are great fun, and then never letting up. The only pause is for a hair suspension act, something I never thought I would see revived but have always dreamed of seeing, and it is a sinuous startling performance that in the best circus/sideshow tradition is arousing and horrifying in equal measure - it is extraordinary.
Once the clown, Wayne Wilson, is freed from his role as game show host, he is hilarious and charms effortlessly, even parodying the erotic allure of the street kids by flashing a bejewelled codpiece and baring his butt. But the true star of Volta is the singer Darius Anthony Harper. The music of Volta is loud and as harshly electronic as a mainstream entertainment can allow, mixing rock n roll guitar with hip hop flavours. Harper's voice soars above and through the sonics, sometimes smoky, sometimes a crystal clear falsetto. Flirting with parodying R&B legends, then mutating into something grounded yet unearthly. And he has presence to burn, androgynous and intensely masculine at the same time, flowing with the beat but not beholden to it. If he were not so conscious of his role in the fabric of the show, he could easily have turned Volta into a solo concert with circus acts as a backdrop.
Of course I want to list the other magic moments: a silk/trapeze act re-imagined with a bordello red tiffany lamp to accentuate the movements of muscle; a unicyclist with an impossible upper body performing hand to hand in a tent of ribbons within the tent; the headbanging and nipple flashing from the tarty street kids; a row of drummers suspended in the air while amplifying the beat; and, and it pains me to admit it, the BMX spectacular was, quite simply, spectacular with the tires slamming into plexi-glass high above our heads. And I left Volta - dazzled, drained and thoroughly entertained - with a variation of the intended theme echoing in my heart: amidst all the bombast, technological marvels and extravagant pageantry, the magic of the circus is thriving. A tightrope, a nimble clown, an ecstatic back flip, an ethereal voice, all connect with the core of what makes us human. And that is quite simply extraordinary.
Volta runs until Sun, Nov 26 under Le Grand Chapiteau, 51 Commissioners St. cirquedusoleil.com